Why the Spelling Bee Never Disappoints

So last week I was lucky enough to wake up early and turn the TV to ESPN, expecting to see Cold Pizza or Mike and Mike in the Morning or something like that, only to find the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was like pulling into the drive-thru at McDonald’s and hearing them say, “Sorry, we’re out of burgers, would you like a steak from Ruth’s Chris instead?”

The Spelling Bee is great. It is incredibly engaging television. I spent almost five hours last Thursday watching the semifinals on ESPN and then the championship rounds on ABC. Now, you probably just think this makes me boring, and there are definitely aspects of the bee that appeal specifically to me (I really like words like “apodyterium,” meaning, “the apartment at the entrance of the baths, or in the palestra, where one stripped; a dressing room”—which ironically is NOT recognized by Word’s Spell Check), but I maintain that the spelling bee is about as close to a perfectly designed competition as there is.

Now, I like sports as much as the next guy (provided that the next guy is not Tim), but let’s face it: most championships are boring. I can’t even remember the last interesting World Series. Sure, the last two Super Bowls were great, but remember Steelers/Seahawks? I didn’t think so. The problem is that most of the times, two teams are not evenly matched, so even with the extra meaning and pressure of the playoffs, championships are only exciting if the game itself is, too.

The spelling bee solves this problem very simply—you cannot mess up. Not once. One letter off and you lose. The margin for error does not exist.

So you don’t have to worry about LeBron James having on off-night for three quarters and then picking up the slack in crunch-time. There are no “extra gears” or any front-runners going on autopilot for a few games. There are no first quarters or game 1s.

There are certainly times when imperfections improve sports—it’s great to watch a player make up for an error with a home run or hit a clutch three after missing ten in a row—and it would be absurd to expect players/teams to go whole games without missing shots, or bat 1.000 over the course of a season, or never lose a game. Not only would it be unreasonable, but even if it COULD happen, it wouldn’t really be fun to watch (we’ve all tried it in video games and tired of it…eventually). Paradoxically, though, imperfection makes a large portion of sporting events boring. Most basketball games do not come down to LeBron James hitting a buzzer-beating three. Most baseball games do not end in walk-offs. Most games, in fact, end without much excitement.

The Spelling Bee, however, always ends with the runner-up getting a word wrong and the winner getting one right. Every word is an elimination game and every letter as important as the next—it’s like the NCAA Tournament, except every game ends with the Laettner shot. (I suppose that is something of an exaggeration)

And the fact that these are kids only helps. These kids aren’t old enough to realize that they won’t care about the Spelling Bee in two years. These kids are between 10-14. Only people that age are capable of joy as pure as this:

That kind of elation is rare, even amongst spellers, obviously. But whenever a participant figures out how to spell his word or recognizes it as one he knows, there is a sense of relief and pride that only comes with a really pure accomplishment. You don’t spell a word right because your defender got lazy or missed a tackle or misplayed a carom. The spelling bee doesn’t come down to who is better; it comes down to who is perfect.

But perfection is impossible. Just as sports only have one champion (unless you’ve set up an elaborate system with computers and polls), all but one of these kids will end by screwing up. Sometimes the kids are resigned and sometimes they are devastated, but their loss isn’t accompanied by the anger sports teams usually feel at a loss—anger or regret for all the imperfections that cost a team the game. Instead, they seem to express mild disappointment and the somber realization that even when you are really, really good at something, you are never going to be perfect. As one kid said last week when he lost in the Finals: “It’s ok. I tried my best. It’s ok.” It’s the kind of uplifting yet heartbreaking cliché that only a kid can say and really mean. And it’s why the Spelling Bee is great every year.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on June 2, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    Another element of the spelling bee that I like is that the seemingly illogical actually is logical to the spellers. Except for geographic names and such that depend on pure memorization, much of the spellers’ ability to spell difficult words comes from rigorous study of different languages and derivations. So, from a more academic perspective, appreciating this makes you appreciate the accomplishments of the spellers even more.


  2. […] pleasure that is much easier to induce in children than in adults (or as co-blogger John S. calls it “pure joy”). A birthday—a celebration of you—sparks this wondrous pleasure. This is not as […]


  3. […] been over a year since I last sang the praises of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but Spelling Bee Day 2010 has finally arrived. This afternoon’s semifinal rounds did not […]


  4. […] I know I said that the Spelling Bee never disappoints, but I may have to correct myself. Last night’s spelling bee finals were kind of disappointing, […]


  5. […] week was Spelling Bee week, and as if John S didn’t love the Spelling Bee enough, they made an Arrested […]


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